Bernie Sanders Meet Bayard Rustin

UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1754: Bayard Rustin (1912-1987), American civil rights activist. Rustin in the Statler Hotel at a news br
UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1754: Bayard Rustin (1912-1987), American civil rights activist. Rustin in the Statler Hotel at a news briefing on the Civil Rights March on Washington, DC, USA, 27 August 1963. Photographer: Warren K Leffler. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

With the primary season now finally and officially underway, and with Senator Bernie Sanders' stunning victory in New Hampshire still registering on the political seismograph, I've been wondering what Bayard Rustin would make of it all.

If you aren't familiar with that name you ought to be. Rustin, who died in 1987 at the age of 75, was a central figure in the Civil Rights Movement. He was the movement's in-house intellectual and one of its tactical geniuses. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave the speech we all remember in front of the Lincoln Memorial on that August day in 1963. Rustin was the guy who organized the event.

Raised among Quakers in a town outside of Philadelphia, Rustin was a pacifist and champion of non-violence. As such, he refused to serve in the army during World War II and went to prison for it. He was an opponent of the Vietnam War well before that position became mainstream. But in the Civil Rights Movement Rustin largely stayed behind the scenes because in addition to his unwavering commitment to racial justice, he was unapologetically gay at a time when "outing" served as a kind of blackmail. Rustin didn't much care, but others in the movement did. White supremacists and black power advocates both denounced him as a "pervert."

Rustin was also a socialist for much of his life, and so one can imagine a really fun, lively conversation between him and Sanders. And yet, I'm not sure that Rustin would be feeling the Bern right now.

In 1965, Rustin looked back on a decade of civil rights triumphs - from Brown v. Board to the Civil Rights Act, and wrote a remarkable essay for Commentary magazine titled: "From Protest to Politics." It is still worth reading.

As the title suggests, the argument of the essay is that Civil Rights protesters created pressure to help dismantle the legal barriers to equality. Now, Rustin went on, to achieve what he called "the fact of equality" required turning to politics directly. "What began as a protest movement," Rustin wrote, "is being challenged to translate itself into a political movement."

Doing so, Rustin knew full well, meant forming coalitions. And coalitions meant compromise. Nothing wrong with that, Rustin argued and he drew an important distinction: "the difference between expediency and morality in politics is the difference between selling out a principle and making smaller concessions to win larger ones." Ever the tactician, Rustin always had the long-view in mind, and he minced no words for those who lost sight of that: "The leader who shrinks from this task reveals not his purity but his lack of political sense."

That observation, though written 50 years ago, might well have been aimed at the Sanders phenomenon. Bernie Sanders appeals because he is both a crusader and a politician (though the same could be said of Ted Cruz too). And he has positioned himself as the singular embodiment of a wide-ranging Democratic Socialist agenda. Le Left C'est Moi!

But Sanders is decidedly not the product of a protest movement now evolving into a political movement of the sort Rustin was theorizing. Sanders may be surfing the collective frustration, disgust, and perhaps even hopes of many people weary of our current political arrangements. As Rustin would be quick to remind us, however, Sanders is not leading a political movement.

The debate about Sanders inside progressive circles has largely revolved around whether, should he win the Democratic nomination, he could be electable. Yes! say his supporters wishfully as much as analytically; No! say his detractors, many of whom are still hung-over from George McGovern's electoral disaster in 1972.

The question misses the larger point. That Sanders will not be able to create the programs that get him the biggest applause at his rallies - free college tuition, a single-payer health system - goes without saying. So Sanders must answer the questions Rustin put on the table in 1965: what small concessions is he prepared to make in order to achieve large goals? Is ideological purity more important to him than political sense? If he can't answer those questions, then his candidacy is nothing more than symbolic.

Rustin would also remind us that genuine movements, of the sort that result in lasting change, take time and require a great deal of hard-work, sacrifice and patience. Before he organized the March on Washington in 1963, Rustin worked with A. Philip Randolph to organize a march on Washington in 1941, and 15 years before the Freedom Rides you've heard about, Rustin organized the Journey of Reconciliation to challenge segregation on interstate buses.

In this sense, Sanders' supporters, and maybe even the Senator himself, have conflated protest with politics. They aren't the same thing, and confusing the two makes both less effective. So the question that Sanders' supporters must answer is: if Sanders loses, are they prepared to channel their energy and anger into a long-lasting political movement?

Steven Conn is the W. E. Smith Professor of History at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He is the editor of To Promote the General Welfare: The Case for Big Government.